Britt Hatzius is interested in the limits and power of language.
From Wednesday through Saturday, she will explore that subject at The Carnegie in a performance/film project called Blind Cinema. Designed to investigate what happens when children help the sightless visualize what they can’t see, the program is the start of the Contemporary Arts Center’s 2016-17 Black Box Performance Series.
The Brussels- and London-based artist will direct these performances, the latest in her ongoing, distinctive Blind Cinema series. These are collaborative screenings of the artist’s films in which children, ages 9-11, whisper descriptions about the wordless moving images they are watching to the blindfolded adults in front of them in a darkened movie theater.
“One of the things I love about Blind Cinema is that it’s unpredictable,” Hatsius says via FaceTime, with genuine earnestness. “Each child has their own ways of speaking, and during a single performance every child will have their own experience of it. You can’t control anything and the experience will always be individual.”
All participants are sensitized due to the imposition of silence in a dark theater setting, and the children speak in hushed voices into listening funnels that reach one row ahead into the ears of the blindfolded adult audience. This invites an uncanny shared intimacy, as if the film itself is a secret to which the child is solely privy and must translate its meaning to the adult.
Hatzius was invited to Cincinnati after meeting the CAC’s performance curator, Drew Klein, at last year’s Time-Based Art Festival in Portland. Blind Cinema is co-presented by the CAC and the new Mini Microcinema.
According to the bio on her website, Hatzius works in photography, video, film and performance while “exploring ideas around language, interpretation and the potential for discrepancies, ruptures, deviations and (mis)communication.”
For the past year, she’s been touring Blind Cinema in 11 locations around the globe, including Greece, Chile and Scotland. And, she adds during her FaceTime conversation, “Every screening is different.”
With a nod to the fragmentary and improvisational quality of the communicative performance (something her work has long been interested in), Hatzius adds, “Everything is dependent on the moment.”
At every Blind Cinema host city, Hatzius spends two to three hours in small-scale workshops with groups of local school children recruited by the host organization. They meet a day or two prior to the official event. She introduces the idea of “creating pictures in someone else’s mind,” and does image-description exercises with the students before they get the chance to try out for the actual performance.
Once they know the expectations, each child doesn’t see the actual film he or she will be narrating until the official screening — a practice that Hatzius says allows for a more “intuitive emotional response” from her young storytellers.
Judging from the consideration given to the experience of the children in her care, as detailed in the information sent out to host organizations for Blind Cinema, she seems just as interested in affecting them as she does her adult audience. (Her instructions state that hosts should make sure their local children are properly prepared and vetted, and that their families have an opportunity for separate parent-only Blind Cinema screenings.)
In fact, the premise of this project — an unspoken contract regarding sharing an intimate form of communication (whispering) between adult and child in a darkened yet public space — feels like a lesson in kindness and consideration for others.
The typical power dynamic of adults leading children is flipped on its head and, instead, children make sense of Hatzius’ deliberately abstract and ambiguous films for the physically vulnerable, sensory-deprived adults.
“The fact that they are responsible for the adults makes them aware of how fragile and sensitive you can become when one sense is taken away,” Hatzius says. This shows, she thoughtfully adds, “how very fragile adults can be.”
The heightening of sensorial sensitivity seems to be one of the main objectives of this work. To that aim, the artist has worked with neuroscientists and blind people to create an assemblage of moments onscreen that, she says, “draws on the side of language and takes the difficulty of describing into account.”
Hatzius sees film as a metaphor for the way our brains process what our eyes see. “Film reflects the fleetingness of images we build in our mind (and) the difficulty of holding an image in your mind,” she says.
Taking that into account, Hatzius purposefully composes the films for Blind Cinema with no clear narrative, thus allowing her temporarily sightless participants to focus on the experience and perhaps add to the children’s verbal descriptions with details from their own imagination.
While Hatzius is in town for the four screenings of Blind Cinema, she also planned on Tuesday to kick off the first night of public film screenings at the Mini Microcinema’s new home on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine. C. Jacqueline Wood’s avant-garde cinema, previously a pop-up, finally secured enough funding through grants from five local foundations to allow for this more permanent location. The Mini is currently partnering with The Carnegie as its fiscal agent while Wood works to attain its nonprofit status.
Instead of showing her personal work at the Mini, however, Hatzius curated a selection of mostly European experimental short films and videos that informed and inspired Blind Cinema — all exploring our relationship to language.
As art so often seeks to communicate those profound ideas between the nature of what we see and what we understand, Hatzius’ endeavors with performance seem like a fresh take on an eternal question.
BLIND CINEMA’s 7 p.m. performances Wednesday and Thursday are filled, but space is available for Friday and Saturday at The Carnegie, 1028 Scott St. in Covington. Admission is free with advance reservations at contemporaryartscenter.org.